Fixing the Republican Party (2009 Apr)

by Barry A. Liebling

While I vote in general elections, I am not a member of any political party. My strong individualistic, free-market, limited-government, secular orientation precludes me from identifying with either the Democrats or the Republicans.

Democrats are forthright in communicating their vision of the government as the first-line agent in all matters important. Their theme is to identify situations where the government might intervene, to concoct intrusive programs, to pass laws to fund the programs, to make sure the programs endure and grow, and then to repeat the cycle by searching for new areas “where government can make a difference.”

Republicans are somewhat more complex. On the one hand they give lip-service to free enterprise and “smaller government” but typically their actions are not consistent with their slogans. Republicans accuse Democrats of going too far on government intervention, spending, and taxation. Then their actions reveal them to be Democrats-light – mimicking Democratic policy at a slower pace and with less intensity. In his eight years George W Bush prodigiously increased the government footprint with policies that included Steel Tariffs, No Child Left Behind, Faith-Based Initiatives, the Prescription Drug Program, Ethanol Subsidies, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). While apologists for the Republican party were embarrassed, they argued that the Democrats would have meddled with even more vigor.

Presently the Republican party is in crisis. It has lost the presidential election, a slew of congressional seats, and its future prospects do not seem promising. What should Republican’s do if they want to have long-term success?

Two fundamentally different approaches are being argued. One side blames the Republican’s problems on its inconsistency and urges the party to take a hard-line. Essentially the hard-liners say the party should proclaim what its principles are and then do its best to persuade voters. They want to articulate an official Republican point of view and encourage all Republican candidates to support it. If this means the party will lose some voters who are unimpressed, so be it.

Rush Limbaugh, the spectacularly influential talk-radio host, personifies the hard-line faction. He rails against Republicans who attempt to accommodate to Democratic party sensibilities, who take what he considers to be “liberal positions,” and who are what he regards as RINO – Republican In Name Only.

The other side believes the Republicans are in trouble because they are out of touch with modern times and not flexible enough. This conciliatory faction wants to see the party reach out to more segments of voters and convince them that Republicans can govern and deliver benefits better than Democrats. The essential theme of the conciliators is that the party should look at where voters can benefit from governmental help and then fashion its platform accordingly. This is very different from the limited government theme.

David Frum, the Harvard-educated lawyer and former speech writer to George W. Bush, is an articulate representative of the flexibility approach. In his NewsWeek cover story “Why Rush Is Wrong” (March 16, 2009) Frum argues that Limbaugh – and those like him – are turning off voters because they are using arguments that worked in the 1970s but do not apply today. Furthermore, Frum characterizes the Limbaugh style as being abrasive and offensive to voters who otherwise might vote for Republican candidates.

Frum, who describes himself as a conservative Republican, apparently does not object to government intervention per se, providing the intervention supports conservative causes. He appears to favor a government that actively enhances income when he states that “political parties that do not deliver economic improvements for the typical person do not get reelected.” He does not seem to regard reducing taxation as essential when he comments that “we need to put free-market health care, not tax cuts, at the core of our economic message.” In his 2008 book Beyond Bush Frum writes that “there are things only government can do and if we conservatives wish to be entrusted with the management of government, we must prove that we care enough about government to manage it well.” In the same book he advocates “green conservatism” and suggests carbon taxes on coal, gas, and ethanol.

So what are the long-term prospects for each approach? The conciliatory faction proposes positioning the Republican party as a close variant of the Democratic party – the same way that Coke and Pepsi are both versions of cola. Voters will choose between moving more quickly and whole-heartedly with the Democrats or at a slower, more cautious pace with the Republicans.

The biggest problem with being conciliatory is that Republicans are conceding the philosophical war to the Democrats. Their essential message will be that an activist government is good but Republicans will manage it better. If the Democrats are right why bother with the me-too Republicans? If the Democrats are wrong what do the copy-cat Republicans have to offer?

The conciliatory approach will encourage some Republican politicians to pander – say whatever it takes to get the positive attention of key voting segments. If Republican candidates continue to demonstrate they are not sincere, observers will notice and the party’s credibility will deteriorate further.

The hard-line approach has potential. If the Republicans can identify a set of core political principles that are valid, and stick with them, they will be in a position to make a convincing case. Of course, the principles should be based on promoting individualism, protecting natural rights, and having a limited government. The task of explaining why the principles are correct is not necessarily easy. But if the Republican platform is genuinely sound, thoughtful people can be won over.

But the hard-line approach is a double-edged sword. If you are going to be strict you had better get your principles right. Republican officials must guard against adopting a platform with wrong-headed elements. For example, the official stance of the national party should be secular and avoid theocratic pronouncements. Voters, regardless of their religious orientation, should find the Republican endorsement of individualism and self-responsibility attractive and compelling.

Theoretically, Republicans could put their philosophical house in order, consistently advocate policies based on sound principles, and be recognized as the proper alternative to the Democrat’s program of expanded statism. While this would be felicitous, I realize that the probability of this happening anytime soon is modest.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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